(Photo © Daniel Sharp)
Recently, you may have noticed your neighborhood parks being taken over by lycra clad people running and jumping with their bikes; or maybe you’ve overheard excited murmurs about brand new cowbells or talk of this years “Crusades.”
No, this isn’t a religiously sanctioned military campaign for cyclists to take over Portland. This is cyclocross.
If you’re new to ‘cross this year, or if you’re just ‘cross-curious, learn more about this fast-growing sport in the primer below…
Cyclocross — often referred to as just, ‘cross — is an entertaining form of racing for participants and spectators alike. Portland’s cyclocross season runs from late August (yes it’s already started!) to mid-December. Racers usually use ‘cross-specific bikes that resemble a road bike but with frame clearance for debris and mud and wide, knobby tires for traction.
(Photo © Daniel Sharp)
Races take place on a closed circuit course of 1-2 miles of grass, gravel, mud, snow, sand, pavement, wooded trails—all which afford many of great places to cheer from. At multiple points on the course racers are forced to dismount their bikes and carry them over barriers or climb hills/stairs too steep to ride (referred to as “run-ups”), then re-mount and continue on for the duration of the race, which usually lasts 30 minutes to an hour.
Remember back to when you were a kid racing your friends around the block, add an obstacle course — and in Oregon, mud — then count how many laps you can do in 45 minutes. The racer with the most laps wins, but pretty much everyone has a blast — especially the cheering bystanders shouting words of encouragement and ringing cowbells to urge the racers on.
A Short History
Bicycle infantries were heavily employed to carry messages from the front lines to command across European battlefields during WWI. After the war ended, this form of cycling morphed from military tactic to winter off-season training for road racers who were encouraged to cut across farmer’s fields, over fences and through streams to get to their destination.
The sport wasn’t officially recognized by an international racing body until the 1950’s, and it didn’t pick up traction here in Portland until the 1980’s when it slowly began to blossom, with a weekly race regularly held at Pier or Creston Parks. Today our most popular races can have up to 1,500 racers and thousands more spectators. Though the venues have grown to accommodate the masses, the views offered are beautiful and pastoral as ever.
Finding Cyclocross Racing in Portland
You don’t have to jump right into racing — or even ride a bike — to join in on the fun. Some say spectators have the best races, and for many cyclocross is truly a family affair. All ages are welcome, and ‘cross has become so popular that most races offer opportunities for everyone from toddlers to grandparents to join in (and yes, even race if they want to), including the newly created high school cyclocross program.
Most every venue is like a carnival, complete with fried food, ringing bells and attractions. You’ll find friendly Oregon Bicycle Racing Association (OBRA) volunteers eager to help out newcomers, vendors of Belgian waffles and pommes frites, free oatmeal and coffee, mobile bike shops, bike raffles and fundraisers for local schools and if you’re lucky, free cowbells (also, OBRA sells them!) to help get your cheering on. Sometimes the riders—or spectators—will even be in costume. Mostly you’ll just find wide, mud-smeared grins.
Many of the local races are accessible by Tri-Met, and from October to December you have your pick of races on Wednesday evenings, Saturdays or Sundays. Find a race near you on the OBRA schedule, which lists all races and clinics across the state of Oregon.
Here in the Portland area, we’re very lucky to have a great selection of ‘cross races to choose from. The big Cross Crusade opener is this weekend at Alpenrose Dairy, but there are smaller events too. Check the the Blind Date at the Dairy, a four-week series which takes place on Wednesday nights (starting tonight!).
— Next up in this series… how to get ready for race day!